Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

You become a creature I can’t understand, my mother sometimes said to me.”



Having loved Lily King’s Writers & Lovers I was looking forward to reading more of her work and I can happily say (or write) that her first-ever collection of short stories did not disappoint. More often than not I find short story collections to be a mixed bag (with some good ones, some meh ones, and even a bad egg or two). But, I found myself drawn to all of the stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter. While the stories focus on characters who don’t always have much in common (be it their age, the time when and/or place where they are living, their fears or desires) their narratives are characterised by a bittersweet tone that will elicit feelings of nostalgia in the reader (regardless of whether they have experienced what the characters are experiencing). Despite the title of this collection many of these stories are set during the summer and easily transport us right there alongside the characters so that we too are experiencing the heat, elation, and almost-surreality of their summer holidays (that feeling of being free from the usual routines etc). King captures with unsparing clarity the thoughts and feelings of her characters, and conveys their wide range of emotions, honing in on the longing, unease, giddiness, and sadness they experience over the course of their stories. Some are in love with someone who may or may not reciprocate their feelings, others are in a phase of transition, for example, from childhood to adulthood, or mired in the confusion of adolescence.

In the first story, ‘Creature’, Cara, a fourteen-year-girl, is employed by a well-off family as a babysitter for the summer holidays. During the time she spends at this family’s house she becomes infatuated with Hugh, her employer’s son, who is much older than her. Our narrator is an aspiring author who likes to envision herself as a Jane Eyre sort of figure but, one thing is to daydream about Hugh, another is realising that Hugh has no compunction about making a move on her (when she’s very much underage).
In ‘Five Tuesdays in Winter’ a single-father and bookseller falls for his employer who is also tutoring his daughter in Spanish. Mitchell is however unable to express his feelings and spends much of his time longing to confess his love to her. In ‘When in the Dordogne’ the son of two professors bonds with the two college students who have been hired to housesit his home and keep an eye on him. In ‘North Sea’ a mother and daughter are on vacation together but their strained relationship results in a less than idyllic time. While the following stories also present us with different perspectives and scenarios they explore similar themes (hope, connection, love). I liked how King manages to be both a gentle and an unflinching storyteller, that is able to make you happy one moment and sad the next. I also appreciated that the stories didn’t have neat endings or ‘valuable’ life lessons but often read like a slice-of-life that is providing us with a glimpse into a specific period of her characters’ lives. King captures how confusing feelings can be sometimes, so that we have characters both longing for something or someone while at the same time feeling uneasy at the possibility of attaining what, or who, they’d thought they desired.
My favourites were ‘Creature’, ‘When in the Dordogne’, ‘Timeline’, and ‘Hotel Seattle’.
King’s understated prose is a marvel to read and I had a wonderful time with this collection. If you were a fan of Writers & Lovers you should definitely pick this one up. Moving and wistful Five Tuesdays in Winter is a scintillating collection!

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Perhaps I should not have requested an arc for People We Meet on Vacation as I was one of the few people who last was not particularly enamoured by Beach Read (i know, i know, the audacity). I actually ended up enjoying this more as I found it to be both funnier and a lot less angsty than Beach Read. Was People We Meet on Vacation particularly original? No.
Memorable? N o p e.
It was cute, silly, a tad cheesy, and a bit too clichèd for my taste (i get it, the romcom is a genre that thrives on tropes but there are limits: opposites attract, will they won’t they, female leads falls and has to be carried by the male lead, one of them is sick so the other has to play ‘nurse’, the list goes on).

The story is narrated by Poppy (who i could not help but compare to another romcom poppy) who is the classic relatable 30ish female lead: she is short, bubbly, quirky, doesn’t like sports. Poppy’s bbf is Alex, who is very much her polar opposite. He is more of a quiet composed kind of guy. They met at university and ever since then they spend their summer holidays together, travelling around America and even venturing abroad. Things change after their trip Croatia (i wonder what could have possibly happened…) and they are no longer in touch.
Two years after their fallout Poppy finds herself reaching out to him. Although she has her dream job, which allows her to do what she loves most (travel), an apartment in New York, and friends, she has become listless. After they reconnect Poppy and Alex go on another vacation together. Poppy wants their old friendship back even if her feelings towards Alex may be less than platonic. Interspersed throughout the ‘now’ are chapter recounting their previous holidays together.

Alex and Poppy’s banter was funny, and most of the narrative focuses on their bond. Their conversations and clowning around often emphasised their ‘opposing’ personalities. Poppy is loud and quirky, Alex is a bit of an old man. Ahah ensues.
The places they visit are mere backdrops to their banter, and in many ways, they embody the worst type of tourist (their idea of a vacation = my idea of hell). They also have 0 tolerance for heat and don’t tend to focus on the sceneries and cultures they are in (the only thing i remember from their trip to italy is that they eat parmiggiano). On these vacations, they come across funny, eccentric, downright odd people whose function is that of comedic relief.

I might have enjoyed this more if Poppy and Alex had been a bit more interesting. Poppy was just the quintessential romcom female lead and I while she did make me laugh now and then I can’t say that I particularly liked her. And I am tired of these stories where the male lead always has to have abs while the female lead is curvy or normal (the other woman instead is ‘fit’). Why can’ the male lead have an ‘average body? Why can’t the female lead be really into running or weightlifting?

Anyway, I did like their dynamic and inside jokes. I also appreciated that the male lead wasn’t the classic ‘i am no good for you’ type and we also get some lgbtq+ side characters.
The vacations do get repetitive, and I could have probably done without reading all of them (focusing instead of the ‘now). Poppy keeps referring to Croatia without actually saying what has happened but we all already can guess what ‘went down’ so why drag it on so long? It added no suspense whatsoever, if anything it detracted from the story. Towards the end, I found myself a bit unconvinced by the story’s so called conflict.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad read and I am sure that it will appeal to diehard romcom fans. I for one found this a relatively entertaining read even if I found some of the lingo (anything poppy’s friend rachel says) to be incredibly grating (i have nothing against americans but when i hear ‘wine dates’ i cannot help but to cringe).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Winterhouse by Ben Guterson — book review

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“She was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words.”

Although I am not part of Winterhouse’s target audience, I do enjoy reading the occasional book aimed towards younger readers as they can be quite uplifting and entertaining reads. In fact, I picked Winterhouse up hoping for a light and amusing read…which it was…occasionally, and the artwork was very cute, I’m not sure Winterhouse lives up to its summary. It has plenty of clever puzzles and word-plays but it lacked…oomph.

Winterhouse has an intriguing yet familiar premise. Elizabeth Somers is an orphan, who is raised by uncaring relatives and who doesn’t have any friends. She is a precocious bibliophile (she does bring up some childhood favourites such as Inkheart, The Golden Compass, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) who is a fan of puzzles, especially anagrams—and of using long or clever words (not always successfully). One Christmas her aunt and uncle decide to go on a holiday without her and so without any explanation or apology they send to the Winterhouse hotel. Once there Elizabeth meets Winterhouse’s eccentric owner, the kind librarian, a boy who happens to be as bespectacled and puzzle-lover as she is, and a sinister couple.
While there was a lot to like, once at Winterhouse Elizabeth’s behaviour becomes increasingly annoying. She is bossy towards her new friend and repeatedly jumps to silly conclusions. The mystery of Winterhouse is weakened by the incredibly cartoonish villains and by a general lack of atmosphere. The rather obvious connection between two characters did not in fact come across as a surprise.
The setting, which had so much potential, never came to life. It remained rather nondescript.

All in all this was an okay MG read. The simple writing style and story reminded me of The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood. At times it seemed that the narrative was trying to be as quirky and clever as a book by Lemony Snicket but it doesn’t quite succeed.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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